The agony of victory

"The agony of victory" Continued...

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

George Pataki, whose term as governor of New York ended last year, repeatedly intervened to preserve the master plan's integrity, and New York papers kept logs of the drawn-out battles: Freedom Tower architect David Childs refused to meet with Libeskind, Libeskind walked out of a meeting with Childs, etc.

The battles have added years to the completion date. At one time Freedom Tower was scheduled to be finished this year, but its construction is only about to reach above ground level. Now construction at the site is slated to conclude in 2014. "The end will come and the project will be built," Libeskind said earlier this month from his studio in lower Manhattan. But he acknowledged that it remains "a complex road."

Technically, Libeskind is the master planner while other architects, including nemesis David Childs, are architects of record for each component of the project. Childs, whose firm lost to Libeskind in the master planning competition, is the architect of Freedom Tower. He has repeatedly fought to increase the footprints of each building and to diminish the open spaces for pedestrian traffic and memorials to 9/11 victims.

To survive the tug-of-war among Ground Zero's stakeholders, Libeskind listens to Nina, his wife of 38 years and mother of their three children. Nina has long been a partner in Studio Daniel Libeskind projects, but her collaboration on a project the whole world is watching has proved vital. She sensed political maneuvering away from the master plan and helped Libeskind plot necessary compromises while remaining stolid about what he considered the essential and symbolic features of the site: the slurry wall, the 1,776-foot height, the wedge of light, and the torch emblem.

Libeskind's wife serves as both confidante and spokesman. At a recent B'nai B'rith real estate luncheon at New York's Cornell Club, she told the audience that Libeskind's studio "would fight tooth and nail" the downtown interests who want the 9/11 memorial at grade rather than its planned slope to 30 feet below grade. "There is a need to have the sanctity of the site preserved and the need to show the slurry wall," she said.

In the end Libeskind is confident the reconstructed site will become a new neighborhood with "a feeling of human scale in the midst of grand buildings, something emotional, moving, not simply an abstraction."

Libeskind generally is affable about ongoing disputes. The slurry wall is being readied, he notes, and the construction closely resembles his original plan. "I continue to be concerned with all the details and all aspects of the project, but the great controversies are over," he said. He's also not surprised by the give-and-take. "The Greeks considered the city the polis, and it has always been about politics, about people. Architecture is difficult because it is art on a public scale. You can think to write a book in your room. But to build a building you have to do it with civic empathy."

Libeskind's decision to become an architect is the result of listening to his mother. Libeskind wanted to be an artist like Andy Warhol. "Varhole?" she said. "For every Varhole there's a thousand penniless waiters. Be an architect." Architecture, she told him, is both trade and art form.

Dora and Nachman Libeskind were Holocaust survivors from Poland. After the war they tried to recreate family life in their hometown of Lodz, which had a Jewish population of 220,000 before the German occupation and 5,000 after.

Life under the Soviets was equally bad, and the family immigrated to New York in 1959 when Daniel was 13. Dora worked in a sweatshop dying fur collars. Nachman took a job in a printshop only blocks from the World Trade Center site. "My parents were survivors of a special kind," Libeskind said. "They never gave up hope."

Much of Libeskind's architectural philosophy is grounded in wide reading of Jewish philosophers, Hindu literature, and the Bible. It is cemented in a reaction against the dehumanizing work of the Holocaust and the collectivism and oppression his family suffered under Soviet invasion. Human faces are important inspiration in his designs and he is unembarrassed to talk about searching for the soul of a building. "Too often architecture is considered something abstract, as if it were the placing of an object in a place. But it is always set down in time, always part of history, always part of communication," he explained.

Fellow architects chortle at his soulful approach and his patriotism, but Libeskind has never gotten over America. When his family arrived in New York, "every person in the street looked to us like a hero, a god," he wrote in his 2004 book, Breaking Ground. "These were the people who had beamed us Radio Free Europe." Prohibited from speaking Yiddish in Poland, even in Israel where his family lived a brief time, his family discovered in New York that "anyone could speak any language-and did." Asked to contribute to Rolling Stone a list of items for "what's cool," Libeskind named fusion, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, and the Bronx.


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